- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

Why wasn't "Amandla!," cumbersomely subtitled "A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony," nominated for a best-documentary Oscar? Not that it's masterful either as filmmaking or advocacy. There are plenty of visible seams and patchy spots in Lee Hirsch's reconstruction of the abiding influence of so-called "freedom songs" on the struggle against apartheid in South Africa over the course of half a century. Yet one would think that Mr. Hirsch's self-evident devotion to this subject matter would have found him a lot of sympathy in Hollywood circles.

The chronology backtracks from a macabre reckoning of the middle 1990s: the exhumation of the corpse of Vuyisile Mini, a songwriter and activist slain in the early years of the apartheid regime. Eventually, "Amandla" a Zhosa term that can be translated as "strength" or "power" concludes with the jubilation engendered by Nelson Mandela's triumphant return.

The witnesses who comment on pivotal events and political phenomena during the intervening years include such revered and eloquent musicians as trumpeter Hugh Masekela, singer Miriam Makeba, jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and guitarist Vusi Mahlasela.

Mr. Ibrahim's remark, "The thing that saved us was music," sounds one of the film's prominent themes, which is reinforced by performance interludes as well as the recollections of the survivors.

The anthems that grew out of the resistance to apartheid are consistently stirring and haunting. However, they possess affinities with American folk and gospel idioms that might have merited some informed discussion and explanation. Mr. Hirsch is vigilant about covering other points, particularly the ways in which mass transportation by train and bus could be used to torment the black population.

He also reserves extended passages for clandestine activists whose exploits did not have a transcendent musical dimension, notably a former saboteur named Thandi Modisi, who recalls her prison ordeal while pregnant. Somewhere along the line, Mr. Hirsch made the acquaintance of a group of former policemen, who recall their apprehensions and obligations while posted at mass demonstrations during the waning years of the old regime.

Every encounter seems invaluable to one degree or another. Because Mr. Hirsch spent a decade or more assembling his movie, the DVD edition is likely to incorporate even more material.

An ironic song titled "What Have We Done?" has a curious undercurrent at the moment. In context, it was a rhetorical question aimed at the white ruling class, and the implicit answer was that nothing done by the black population justified systematic racism, disenfranchisement and pauperization. One detects a forlorn echo in the voices of apologetic Americans who are inclined to lament, "Why do other countries hate us so much?" In this case, a radically different reply is expected, confirming their sense of unworthiness and defeatism.

That way lies the capitulation song rather than the freedom song.


TITLE: "Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional documentary images of violence; fleeting profanity)

CREDITS: Directed by Lee Hirsch. Editing by Johanna Demetrakas. Sound design by Gary Rydstrom. Sound recording by Stuart Deutsch

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes


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